Not exactly spoilt for Choice™: Government issue condoms scrutinized
The New Age have chosen to highlight striking students’ demand for condoms among a list of other grievances that were laid before the management of Durban’s University of Technology (DUT) during protests that began last week.
Spurred on by a high HIV prevalence among DUT students and staff, students had allegedly been calling for branded condoms to be supplied to all rooms in residences.
Student council president Mfanafuthi Ngcobo fervidly argued that the call was not for branded condoms per se, but instead for the provision of condoms in general. In the TNA article, Ngcobo is quoted saying that there are no condoms in residences and that this, coupled with students' affinity for partying and consuming alcohol, was raising concerns about unprotected sex.
That students are demanding a reliable and steady supply of condoms, based on their own recognition that they are potentially exposed to risky sexual behaviour, is a refreshing display of insight by the South African youth.
One could also add that it is entirely reasonable for students to hold university management accountable in the management of student health.
As for the calls for branded condoms – whether true or not, the rumours raise a long-standing concern on our safe-sex agenda: Government-issue Choice™-branded condoms simply are not the condoms of choice.
The obvious choice?
To say the government-issue Choice™ condom has had a rough ride, would be somewhat of an understatement.
On 16 June 2004, Youth Day, infamous Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang ushered in a re-branded government condom (read her speech).
The old silver and red AIDS-ribbon packaging was being replaced with a much trendier yellow and blue design. The new condom was branded Choice™, with the strapline: “No choice, no play”.
Whilst the name did come with a fair share of ambiguity (what if your choice is not to use a condom?), removing the strong AIDS-connotations from the original government-issue condom was a commendable move.
Government condoms could now begin to move away from being seen as mere agents in the fight against HIV, and instead be reinvented as an empowering and enabling force in the pursuit of healthy, happy sex lives.
Regrettably, the widespread perception that government-issue condoms are of a lower quality seemed to haunt the Choice™ condom in spite of its new image. In an atmosphere of extreme suspicion of government health services, it was hardly surprizing.
Then in 2007 the Choice™ brand was dealt an insufferable blow. The recall of some 20 million faulty condoms in 2007 only seemed to vindicate initial suspicions that government condoms are inferior and cannot be trusted. After the recall, government continued to issue condoms under the Choice™ brand.
Quality vs. image: The subtext of condoms
Ultimately, of course, the Choice™ condom’s failure to be the brand of choice has very little to do with the actual quality of the condoms. Choice™ condoms are subjected to rigorous quality control and are deemed safe and reliable by the SABS.
The public have also repeatedly been assured that the 2007 case of faulty condoms was an isolated incident driven by corruption and there have been no quality concerns since.
But even if the condoms are OK, the connotations with the brand will forever hamper the acceptance of Choice™ condoms as safe, reliable and trendy.
Inevitably, the heart of this debate comes down to something rather superficial, yet utterly crucial to the world of marketing and advertising: brand identity.
We build a large part of who we are on the kinds of things we surround ourselves with. Consequently, most companies don’t just sell products; they sell a car/phone/pair of jeans PLUS a complex construct of social and cultural meaning attached to it.In other words, they are selling lifestyles. Your car does not just get you from A to B, it is a narrative, a subtle but clear subtext to your identity: “I am an important business man”; “I am a quirky artistic soul”; “I am a classy stay-at-home mom”, etc.
Bring the sexy back
The truly salient question then is whether Choice™ condoms and all they have come to represent, allow young people to make the statements they would like to.
The rumoured calls for branded condoms suggest that they don’t. It only takes a quick look at the kind of marketing done by branded condom manufacturers like Durex to know why: They sell pleasure, not prevention.
The Choice™ condom has been inextricably tied to a very particular era in our history. It marked a significant step towards prevention that did not wag the finger and instead offered people a choice.
But over seven years later, it might be time for another reinvention of the government-issue condom, one that can usher in a new era of sex-positive prevention. Hopefully our third-generation government-issue condoms will say: “Sex is fun and condoms make it even better”.